Mid-Life Crisis

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I started working with bonsai in my late twenties. That’s a pretty young start compared to most folks. I got hooked bonsai by my grandfather, but that was almost 25 years ago! I poured over his John Naka books on every visit. I even collected my first two trees with him just south of the Grand Canyon of the fourth of July during a summer visit. Yes, my very first trees were collected, not nursery stock.

 I used mostly books as my guide in those early years. That meant that I hacked away on trees until not much foliage remained, weakening the trees. Most survived though. I worked hard to develop them and like many of you, I now have those trees with quite a bit of nice, even foliage. Too nicely in fact. They have what Bob Laws likes to call lots of “Fuzz”. Now that the trees have reached some level of stability and are nicely filled out, they are rather a plump and overly ramified group. So this is the midlife crisis for many of our bonsai.  

Time to go on a diet. Maybe your trees have become too thick and full, and the trunk line is obscured or the movement or interest is all gone. Time to get out the saw and pruners and loose a few branches. Your trees will thank you. A friend told me of some experiences with his class with Ryan Neil. This person brought in a few trees to get worked on. When it came time, Ryan grabbed some concave cutters and asked, “Do you mind if I cut off this branch?” Gulp. “OK”.   Wow! Now that’s a bonsai!  

What Ryan had introduced back into the tree was movement, direction, and flow. Now the tree was interesting and what made it that way was space. The space between different branches, between branches and the pot. And different sized and shaped spaces. There was variety and not merely a fuzz ball.  

The proverb, Less is More comes to mind. As trees develop, we often have fewer branches off the trunk, but those branches are much more highly developed and carry a large foliage mass, keeping the tree healthy and strong. Is your tree boring you a bit? Take a look and see if the lower branches on either side are the same height. If so, think about using wire to raise or lower one or both branches, or eliminate one completely and you will automatically introduce movement into the design.  

Less static, more dynamic. Maybe you introduce a large space somewhere in the middle of the tree. If you can get out a ruler and measure the distance between each branch to get it the same, chances are it is a really dull design. Dynamic balance takes more skill and patience, but is much more rewarding in the end. Happy pruning.

Scott Elser